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Thursday, 30 November 2006
Page: 39


Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services) (11:55 AM) —We all seek cures to the terrible diseases and injuries that afflict modern man—cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, to name but a few. Researchers are now pressing the Australian parliament to allow therapeutic cloning of human embryos, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, as a potential cure for many of these diseases. The Australian parliament banned this in 2002 but, as we are aware, it is again under review following the Lockhart report, which recommended human embryo cloning and human-animal ‘hybrid’ embryos. Thankfully, the Senate has disallowed human-animal hybrid embryos.

What are the facts about stem cells? Stem cells can form any cell in the body and therefore are able to become liver, bone or nerve cells and so on. There are two sources of stem cells: adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, known as human embryonic stem cells. The former are harvested painlessly from many parts of the adult human body while the latter are made from four- to seven-day-old embryos which have the nucleus removed and the nucleus of another cell, such as a skin cell, inserted so that they can form stem cells. Dolly the cloned sheep, which we are all familiar with, was formed from the embryo of a sheep using a similar technique.

I think all Australians would ask: what, to date, are the results of research work on these two types of stem cells? Embryonic stem cells have not produced any cures and, in fact, in animal experiments have formed tumours. Professor Alan Mackay-Sim of Griffith University has said:

The serious problem of tumour formation from embryonic stem cells of any source remains a major obstacle.

By contrast, however, adult stem cells are credited with some 65 therapies. The most common we would all be familiar with is bone marrow transplant to treat leukaemia. Griffith University has also grown adult stem cells into new brain, liver, heart, kidney and muscle cells and has been conducting clinical trials at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane to regenerate spinal cells to help paralysed individuals walk again. Those clinical trials are ongoing.

At this juncture, I would like to talk about an expert in adult stem cell research. People ask why some stem cells produce therapies and others do not. We were very fortunate to have had many experts generously give their time to assist members in this House and in the Senate. One of them is Professor James Sherley, professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a scientist at the forefront of adult stem cell research. From my perspective, he provided the best explanation for laypeople of the way in which stem cells differentiate. The bodies we have now are not the bodies we had two years ago. Our cells constantly regenerate—and it is adult stem cells that regenerate. Some parts of our body change their cells far more rapidly than others. Adult stem cells have the ability to divide asymmetrically—in other words, whilst they divide into new adult stem cells, they divide into the cells of the tissues that they repair or replicate. Adult stem cells have the ability to hold the memory of the cells around them—in other words, when they asymmetrically divide, if they are liver cells they will divide into one adult stem cell and a new liver cell. Embryonic stem cells, however, cannot repair tissue—which is, of course, the prime task of an adult stem cell—because they do not divide asymmetrically.

One of the reasons that embryonic stem cells form tumours at such a high rate is, as we would know, that they are there to create a whole new human being. The argument is that the tendency of embryonic stem cells to form tumours rather than divide asymmetrically and form new tissue can be overcome by research. According to Professor Sherley, that is very unlikely to be the case. What has happened is that the proponents have now changed tack; they are now looking to study disease processes rather than find cures. In fact, Harvard University has now asked that the embryos they are studying be allowed to grow beyond 14 days, which is of great concern to those of us who in 2002 said it would be a slippery slope if this were allowed.

I would like to go to some other points that Professor Sherley made. With cloned embryos, there are inevitably defects in genetic make-up. It is very difficult for a cloned animal to be grown without defects. As we know, Dolly the sheep had significant defects. The genes are altered. The stem cells that would be derived from human embryonic stem cells will, likewise, have significant defects.

I would like to move to the question of whether we support with additional funding the call for more work to be done on human embryonic stem cells when many experts doubt that there can be any effective therapies derived. I would prefer to see funding being put into adult stem cells, for which there are already some therapies derived and for which clinical trials are going on with human beings—whereas human embryonic stem cells are still at the animal trial stage, without any successes.

Having talked about the lack of scientific progress with human embryonic stem cells, I would like to turn to the core question, which is that human embryonic stem cells are not pieces of tissue, as some have asserted. There are questions about whether embryos are human beings and when human life begins. Professor Sherley says:

Both scientists and physicians know very well that human embryos are alive and human. A human life begins when a diploid complement of human DNA is initiated to begin human development. Therefore, a life can be initiated by the fusion of sperm and air or by the introduction of a diploid nucleus into an enucleated egg (ie, “cloning”). Given that embryos are human beings, they have a right to self and a right to life.

I would like to explore this a little further. We were all, at one stage, as small as embryos. Embryos are tiny collections of cells which are very small, but, if allowed to grow, they will form a whole new human being. I am very concerned that this legislation, if passed, will allow the creation of human embryos—some to live and some to die. I believe it is morally wrong to take the youngest of humans—with their souls—and sacrifice them when they have no voice to speak in their defence. I believe God gives each of us an immortal soul and that, if we have that soul at birth, we probably have it three months before birth, six months before birth and perhaps 8½ months before birth. We are making a decision to sacrifice other human beings who have no voice to speak for themselves.

If that sacrifice were to be for cures for many of mankind’s illnesses and ailments, I think it would be a difficult argument. But, demonstrably, at this point in time, not only are there no therapies from human embryonic stem cells; there are no successful trials with animals. Also, according to experts in stem cell research, there are inherent difficulties in the make-up of embryonic stem cells that do not lead them to a form of differentiation that can lead to cures. From a scientific point of view, I think those are very serious arguments against proceeding down this path.

It is my intention to vote against this legislation. I have another concern: the ability to access ova will plainly be difficult. The Senate has rejected one of the proposals of the Lockhart review, which was human-animal hybrids created from animal eggs and human sperm. As I said, I am pleased that the Senate has rejected that. Recently, researchers in the United Kingdom created a half cow-half human organism. It was later destroyed. I think most of us in this parliament would be horrified at such a prospect.

The Lockhart review and this bill, the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006, propose that, potentially, eggs from aborted female foetuses could be harvested to make up for the obvious difficulty of sourcing sufficient ova. It raises the question that aborted female foetuses could become mothers without ever having lived themselves.

In making a plea to the parliament, I do ask members to support the government in putting more funding towards adult stem cell research, which I believe has shown very encouraging results over a long period. I note the argument that others have used—that is, Australians might be denied the benefits of research, if it is successful, on embryonic stem cells. Can I say that no Australian is denied the benefits of research undertaken overseas at present on a range of other therapies. The argument to support this legislation, although there are as yet no successful outcomes, I think is a spurious argument.

Others have spoken of the heartache and distress of relatives and friends stricken with terrible illnesses. I have also supported a family member with a long and lingering illness and a painful death, although I do not now intend to elaborate on that. I respect the concern that other members of the House have to find any cure, but I do believe that it is also wrong and disrespectful to those who are suffering to divert funds from research that is demonstrably having results, such as adult stem cell research. I think the best thing that the parliament could do would be to support research which is showing results, such as adult stem cell research, and reject a path that the parliament rightly rejected in 2002. As I said, I will be voting against this bill, and I strongly support more funding for research on adult stem cell research.